Archive for the 'Culture' Category

ICT as a function of Education across East Africa: An overview.

To an outsider, it can seem slightly incongruous  that Kenya, Uganda, and small Rwanda have taken leading roles in leveraging mobile and internet technologies for strong social effect where Tanzania (and peripherally, still conflict torn Burundi) have lagged. When looking to explain ICT’s present day regional gaps, it is easy to grasp for many the obvious disparities like the relative lack of modern English proficiency, poverty rankings, cultural differences, the metropolis hub factor, or the historical figures about relative investments made in the colonialism era. These are the facts, but to me, the clearest vantage on this landscape is the median higher-education student finished or finishing at government schools across the region. In Kenya and Uganda, this median student is already trained and seeking skilled work. In Tanzania, he (or a lucky she) is an A-level student, college freshmen or sophomore.

A while back, Jon Gosier of Appfrica offered the telling statistic that inspired Appfrica Labs to spring from the Makerere University, long respected as one of the prime East African academic institutions, in downtown Kampala:

In Makerere’s Computer Science program they graduate about 900 kids per year. Of those 900 between 5% and 10% find full time jobs by the same time the next year. Those that don’t find jobs by that time, now have the added pressure of competing with the next class – with a the added disadvantage of a slightly outdated and somewhat unequal education (as education should be getting better with each graduating class)

This, of course, showed that there was a vast amount of untapped talent to inspire in Uganda.

From my own experience working in the education sector, Tanzania isn’t in this situation: in contrast, they’re still ramping up the post-secondary education system to meet even the tiny job market. About eight years past, Tanzania massively expanded its primary school enrollment (East Africa comparison graph) (2002, PEDP). About six years ago, leaders started building a huge number of secondary schools (SEDP) and student numbers (& some teaching standards, like A-level) have gone way up with the greater student base and intense competition. In the last year they’ve built several huge, new government universities which are starting to accept students in large numbers from these original student cohorts as they now reach adulthood. The government of TZ is also handing out many “loans” which are much like grants to a large fraction of the eligible post-secondary students who apply for them.

The challenge of today is to help these still-green Tanzanian higher-education students realize the communities of ICT online as efficiently as possible so that they have a chance to compete in the regional marketplace. An effective ICT practitioner can not keep themselves current without engaging online.  Think of all those students finishing CompSci at Makerere and getting lost in the progress. Fresh ideas exchanged through newly liberalizing labor market initiatives like the strengthened East African Community (EAC), university-affiliated silicon tech hubs, and high profile competitions like Apps4Africa are fantastic for this. I am happy to note that Tanzanian academics like Rakesh Rajani (e.g. his comments on the SEDP in 2006 & on Twitter) who led some aspects of the hugely important education expansions in Tanzania are getting behind it. Sure, iHub, Appfrica Labs and Hive Colab are big names in East African ICT today.  Tanzania, (and though I can’t speak to them so directly, even Rwanda/Burundi) have a good chance at their own ICT silicon-style hubs as the higher education terrain swiftly develops in the greater Uswahili.

Just to caution: I am not a development or economics scholar so please do correct me if you think any portrayal of a stat is inaccurate.

Update September 2010: Slightly revised versions of this article were cross-published by invitation on ICTWorks and also onto as a guest post.

Cultural Collisions & Peace Corps

Many Peace Corps volunteers, myself included, coming from an environment and concern of US racism, run across skin whitening of various sorts from photo processing, to clearly unhealthful bleach, to commercial cosmetics. We balk. In my host country there was plenty of talk of colonialism and passively offered accusations. Generally they were of questionable substantiality. In this case though, from an American perspective, the “colonial” and “neocolonialist” influence is deceivingly easy to deride. Today, danah boyd has offered me an intriguing perspective on skin whitening.

It was just out of curiosity so I can’t remember what all I read but I remembered being startled by the class-based histories of artificial skin coloring, having expected it to be all about race. Apparently, tanning grew popular with white folks earlier in the 20th century to mark leisure and money. If you could be tan in winter, it showed that you had the resources to go to a warm climate. If you could be tan in summer, it showed that you weren’t stuck in the factories for work…That we can’t see it simply in light of race, but as a complex interplay between race, class, and geography.

Its true. I never heard any East African rail against skin whitening. It is a tempting target but probably a nonissue in a different cultural context. This clash between Indian branch of Vasoline brand and the US reminds me of another cultural chasm brought into contrast by the social internet: the Makmende meme.

Ethan Zuckerman wrote about how Wikipedians adamantly wanted to erase the article for Makmende as it didn’t seem relevant or significant. As the meme crossed Kenyan blogs it was quite notable in those circles but not reachable by the average westerner wikipedia editors.

These kinds of misunderstandings rarely reach us in the US, especially not as we sit down at our computers. They greet and grate on volunteers and international workers constantly–Pretty much whenever they walk out the door of their comfy homes.

Unsmilingly photogenic. Did you think honest portraits required smiles?

Are there any more examples of Cultural Collisions that you’ve seen recently?

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